Recruiting rundown: Nerlens Noel now top dog in class of ’12


After the late August decision by center Andre Drummond to enter the college ranks at, 6-6 wing Shabazz Muhammad of Bishop Gorman (Nev.) held a significant reign as the unchallenged, consensus top high school basketball prospect in the 2012 class. In the always changing world of high-major basketball recruits, nothing is set in stone, as Muhammad found out regarding his No. 1 ranking.

In less than a week’s time, two major services (ESPN and Scout) have anointed a new top dog in the senior class, 6-11 center Nerlens Noel of Tilton School (N.H.), by way of Everett, Mass. Other services are certain to follow that decision. A few years back, Noel’s decision to reclassify from a 2012 prospect to a member of the 2013 class drew virtually no attention, as he was a prospect primarily based on height, alone. Time has been kind to Noel, though, and he is now a special prospect with very real NBA upside.

Something special has happened in Noel’s development over the last six months, starting with his AAU team’s roughshod run over much of its competition over the spring and summer, as BABC (Boston Amateur Basketball Club) didn’t encounter many foes capable of stopping their attack. At the centerpiece of the successful team, Noel showed out as a fearless defender, capable of rejecting shots from difficult angles.

Playing for one of the top prep schools in the country, Noel has now expanded his offensive game, as well. While not completely polished, his ball skills and handle have improved, and he uses an athletic burst to score around the hoop. But make no mistake; Noel’s claim to fame is still his unreal defensive presence, with countless blocked and altered shots being his calling card, virtually every game. He’s a stopper seldom encounter in amateur basketball.

Noel announced mid-week that he intends to re-join his original class, and reclassify to the 2012 class. That decision immediately sent shockwaves through the ranks of basketball recruitniks, as Noel is a rare talent as a near 7-footer, much like Anthony Davis, that doesn’t necessarily come along every year. Presumably, his stay in the college ranks won’t amount to more than a season, but he projects to be a centerpiece, defensively, on a team intending to make an NCAA tournament run. The move was long rumored, and with his continued improvement it isn’t clear what competition he would have faced that would have challenged him in any way, had he stuck around for another season at Tilton School.

Interested programs have just over two months to woo Noel prior to the regular signing period, and the early indications are that Kentucky and Syracuse could be the frontrunners in landing Noel. At Kentucky, Noel would seem to be the ideal replacement for the aforementioned Davis, while Syracuse he would be  a supplement to Fab Melo, who should return as a junior, and another blue chip freshman center in DaJuan Coleman, a 280 pound presence.

There’s still time for North Carolina, Providence and possibly others to make up ground in Noel’s recruitment, and potentially other schools may get involved as well.

Still, Muhammad has a killer instinct that was a large reason analysts so readily rewarded him with the top spot in their respective rankings. His answer to being “demoted” to the No. 2 spot? He put up 41 points on 6 of 6 shooting from 3-point land against power Whitney Young (IL) in a weekend televised showcase game. To be clear, Muhammad hasn’t done anything to merit being moved down, but he’s more of a victim to the circumstance of such a high-upside, unique player like Noel being added to the mix.

There’s also still the possibility that Muhammad and Noel could team up in college, as Muhammad also counts Kentucky as a finalist for his services. That could be an unbelievable duo. It certainly remains to be seen how the class will shake out several years down the road, but it is imprudent to bet against Muhammad’s relentless work ethic and style, just as it as to discount the rare attributes that Noel can bring to the hardwood.

Bayou bruiser Ricardo Gathers takes Baylor in, and commits
Former St. John’s pledge Ricardo Gathers was extremely sought after, following parting ways with the Johnnies, but he’s back off the board. Gathers made a verbal commitment after a trip to Baylor’s campus last weekend. The 6-7, 240 pound power forward is a top-35 prospect in the 2012 class, and looks to be an ideal replacement to the skill set and rebounding production that Baylor senior Quincy Acy currently brings.

Gathers is coached at Riverside Academy (L.A.) by former Baylor star “Tweety” Carter’s former high school coach, and he will be a perfect foil to top-5 prospect Isaiah Austin, a slender and finesse-oriented who also signed with the Bears. Gathers has a take-no-prisoners style and is serious about owning the boards. He’s a good athlete that has the build of a supersized NFL tight end. Gathers, Austin and top-100 point guard LJ Rose assure Baylor will have a top-10 recruiting class, this year.

In adding Gathers, Baylor has also largely insulated itself against the potential loss of current freshman Quincy Miller, who is likely to get serious NBA feelers at the conclusion of the season. Baylor continues to recruit at an extremely high-level, and now has a frontcourt that can do serious damage, with Austin, Gathers and potentially Miller all possessing serious star power. Rose will help down the line, though Baylor seems to have a burgeoning star in current junior Pierre Jackson (last year’s top JC recruit in the country) in the backcourt.

Kellon Hassenstab runs Follow him on Twitter @hoopniks.

Houston-Miami matchup a battle for respect

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Top-seeded Houston is in the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament, but the Cougars don’t feel they receive the proper respect.

Heading into the second weekend of the tournament, that feeling lingers despite the Cougars being just one victory away from their third straight Elite Eight appearance.

“A lot of people were pushing for us to lose,” Houston guard Tramon Mark said. “They didn’t believe we were a real 1 seed because of the conference (American Athletic) we play in. But I think we’re one of the best teams in the country still, and we proved it.”

The Cougars (33-3) look to take the next step when they battle fifth-seeded Miami (27-7) on Friday night in Midwest Region play in Kansas City, Mo.

Houston spent the entire season near the top of the national rankings and surely isn’t a surprise Sweet 16 participant.

“I put ourselves in a whole different category,” forward J’Wan Roberts said. “I don’t compare us to other teams. We just stick to what we do, and it shows. Other No. 1 teams got beat, but we didn’t.”

The Cougars and Alabama are the No. 1 seeds still playing. Purdue lost in the opening round and Kansas fell in the second.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson tries to simplify the approach during March Madness.

“We’ve been here many times in the final 16,” Sampson said. “The next 40 minutes are going to be big. We’ve got to find a way to get the next 40 minutes, and then we’ll move on from there. If not, it’s over.”

Star guard Marcus Sasser (groin) is still gimpy despite scoring 22 points in Saturday’s 81-64 win over Auburn. On Thursday, Sasser proclaimed he will be “around 90 percent” for the game. Teammate Jamal Shead (knee) said he is 100 percent recovered.

Mark scored a career-high 26 points against Auburn.

The Hurricanes are in the Sweet 16 in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history. Last season, they reached the Elite Eight before being routed 76-50 by eventual national champion Kansas.

Star guard Isaiah Wong said it is a great era for the Hurricanes, who are just two victories away from matching the school record.

“It’s just an honor being part of this program, with the history we have,” Wong said. “We have a great team this year and last year too, and I feel like it’s great to see how we came up.

“My first year we wasn’t as good, but for the last two years, we’re going to the Sweet 16, and last year the Elite Eight.”

Still, guard Jordan Miller said that Miami also doesn’t receive the level of respect it should.

“I wouldn’t say underappreciated, but at the end of the day, all we can do is just come out and win basketball games,” Miller said. “I feel like winning a game in itself is a way to get recognition. We’re going to the Sweet 16. That’s a lot of recognition. We don’t necessarily care about what the media says.”

Wong averages a team-best 16.1 points and Miller is right behind at 15.1 Nijel Pack and Norchad Omier both average 13.4 points with the latter collecting a team-leading 10.1 rebounds per game.

Omier grabbed 17 rebounds in Sunday’s 85-69 victory over Indiana. That was a program record for boards in an NCAA Tournament game, surpassing the 14 he collected two nights earlier in a 63-56 victory over Drake.

“If I’m being honest, I really don’t know,” Omier said of his success. “I just like playing with my teammates. They always motivate me to go do what I love to do, and I love rebounding.”

Wong scored 27 points against Indiana.

Miami guard Wooga Poplar, who injured his back against Indiana, has yet to be cleared but will be in the starting lineup if he can play.

Houston holds a 9-5 series edge over Miami but the schools haven’t met in 52 years.

The winner faces either second-seeded Texas or third-seeded Xavier in Sunday’s regional final.

Punch thrown following Bowling Green-Memphis WNIT game

Chris Day/The Commercial Appeal / USA TODAY NETWORK

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio – A confrontation between two players in the postgame handshake line following Bowling Green’s win over Memphis on Thursday night in the Women’s NIT has been referred to campus police.

As the teams walked toward center court following Bowling Green’s 73-60 win in the Round of 16 game, Memphis’ Jamirah Shutes stopped to talk with Falcons’ player Elissa Brett. After a short conversation, Shutes appears to throw a punch at Brett’s face. Brett fell toward the scorer’s table and onto the sideline.

There was no immediate word about what caused the confrontation or if any player was seriously injured.

Bowling Green said in a statement that the incident is in the hands of the campus police.

“The incident that took place following tonight’s home WNIT game has been turned over to the BGSU Police Department,” the school said. “Bowling Green State University Athletics does not make comments about active police investigations. Our priority is with the health, safety and support of our student-athletes.”

Bowling Green coach Robyn Fralich didn’t directly comment on the incident after the game, saying only that they were “figuring all those things out,” as far as what happened in the handshake line.

Memphis’ office of sports information didn’t immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper reported that Shutes, who leads the Tigers in scoring, took an elbow to her face with 24 seconds left in the opening quarter and played just eight minutes in the first half. She returned to start the second half.

Shutes, a fifth-year player who finished with 13 points in her final game with the Tigers, was a second-team All-AAC selection this season.

Brett scored 15 points in the win.

South Carolina’s leading scorer Jackson heads to NBA draft

Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina leading scorer Gregory “GG” Jackson II said Friday that he’s entering the NBA draft after one season in college.

The 6-foot-9 freshman said on Instagram Live that his year in college with the Gamecocks helped him mature.

“Now, I’m declaring for the NBA draft, just like that,” he said.

Jackson, 18, is projected as a mid-first round selection.

He started 29 of 32 games for the 11-21 Gamecocks, averaging a team-high 15.4 points a game. He also led South Carolina with 26 blocks and 24 steals.

Jackson, from Columbia, was rated the No. 1 college prospect in 2023. But he reclassified to join his hometown team and first-year coach Lamont Paris.

Gonzaga beats UCLA 79-76 in Sweet 16 on Julian Strawther’s late 3-pointer

Gonzaga's Malachi Smith
USA Today
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LAS VEGAS — Gonzaga and UCLA played one NCAA Tournament game that left the Zags’ star player bawling, and another game that stunned the Bruins.

Add another to the list. Maybe the maddest one in March yet.

Julian Strawther hit a 3-pointer with 7.2 seconds left to answer a 3-pointer by UCLA’s Amari Bailey, lifting Gonzaga to a wild 79-76 win over UCLA Thursday night in the Sweet 16.

“It’s moments like that you can’t make up,” said Strawther, a Las Vegas native. “Those are literally the moments you dream of. To even make a shot like that in March Madness and just to be back home in Vegas is like the cherry on top.”

The Bruins (31-6), the West Region’s No. 2 seed, stormed back from an eight-point deficit in the final 1:05 and took a 76-75 lead on Bailey’s 3-pointer with 12.2 seconds left.

The Zags (31-5) brought the ball up the floor and Strawther stepped into a 3-pointer after a drop pass from Hunter Sallis, sending Gonzaga fans to their feet.

“As soon as it came off, it looked like it was on line,” Strawther said.

The Zags still had to sweat it out.

Gonzaga’s Malachi Smith stole the ball from UCLA’s Tyger Campbell, but Strawther only hit 1 of 2 free throws at the other end, giving the Bruins a chance.

Campbell’s 3-pointer at the buzzer hit the back of the rim, sending the Zags rushing off the bench and into the Elite Eight against UConn on Saturday while leaving the Bruins disappointed again.

“Every game, try not to get too high, try not to get too low,” said UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez, who had 29 points and 11 rebounds. “He hit a big shot and we lost.”

Strawther’s shot was reminiscent of the one Villanova’s Kris Jenkins made off a drop pass to clinch the 2016 national championship – a shot that came after North Carolina’s Marcus Paige hit an off-balance 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left.

There’s a reason it looked familiar.

“That’s Jay Wright’s play that he used in Villanova-Carolina, the championship,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “That’s what we call it. He makes it all the time.”

It also is the latest chapter in what’s become the best West Coast rivalry in college basketball.

UCLA got the better of the teams’ first NCAA Tournament go-around, rallying from 17 points down to send the Zags out of the 2006 bracket and star Adam Morrison to the floor crying.

Jalen Suggs crushed the Bruins the last time, hitting a running 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Zags to the 2021 national championship game.

“I can’t even describe what he did. It’s crazy,” Gonzaga’s Drew Timme said of Strawther’s game-winner. “It’s just like that Jalen shot, man.”

Timme had 36 points for his record 10th NCAA Tournament game with 20 points.

The flurry of a finish started off more like a prize fight, each team taking its turn landing blows in a game of wild swings.

UCLA led by 13 at the half, but went on an 11-minute field goal drought as Gonzaga went up by 10 with 2:40 left. The Bruins took their rally turn and retook the lead, but left Gonzaga with too much time on the clock.

“We should have been tighter on Strawther,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “We were the whole game. We just weren’t on that play. If we were tighter then he couldn’t have looped behind.”

Timme kept Gonzaga in it during UCLA’s torrid first half and Gonzaga’s porous first-half defense tightened in the second, giving them a seven-point lead with 53 seconds left.

Jaquez brought the Bruins back in his final college game.

The Pac-12 player of the year scored on a three-point play and a layup to cut it 74-71 with 45 seconds left. Timme then missed two free throws, setting up Bailey’s shot.

Thankfully for the Zags, Strawther was on the mark with his long 3-pointer and Campbell was off the mark on his, sending Gonzaga to the Elite Eight for the fifth time under Few.

Florida Atlantic makes first Elite Eight, bounces Tennessee

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NEW YORK — Florida Atlantic, playing in just its second NCAA Tournament, moved within a victory of the Final Four by using a second-half push led by Michael Forrest to beat fourth-seeded Tennessee 62-55 on Thursday night.

The ninth-seeded Owls (34-3) will play third-seeded Kansas State in the East Region final at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

Even before the tournament started, this was the unquestionably the greatest season in FAU history. Now it the Owls are one of the biggest stories in all of sports.

Johnell Davis led the Owls with 15 points and Forrest finished with 11, eight in a crucial second-half run where FAU took control.

The Volunteers (25-11), who were looking for just the second Elite Eight appearance in program history, shot just 33% – including 6 of 23 from 3-point range. Josiah-Jordan James and Jonas Aidoo scored 10 points apiece.


The Owls have never played Kansas State.